Collecting debts from the dead

I have an elderly neighbor who is certain to die in crushing credit card debt. So this NYT article on a “new frontier” in debt collection grabbed my attention. (Edge of the West linked to it here.) It’s a profile of DCM Services, specialists in getting the bereaved to assume responsibility for the unsecured debts of the dear departed.

“Dead people are the newest frontier in debt collecting, and one of the healthiest parts of the industry. … New hires at DCM train for three weeks in what the company calls ‘empathic active listening,’ which mixes the comforting air of a funeral director with the nonjudgmental tones of a friend.” This “empathic” approach, it turns out, is the most effective way to persuade grieving relatives to assume responsibility for debts they are not liable for. Not that the company goes out of its way to clarify the absence of liability.

The approving business reporter glides smoothly over the implications of all this. Never mind the fact that these debts may consist entirely of compounded interest on fees and penalties assessed arbitrarily by the credit card issuer, after the original principal has been paid off and then some. The job of DCM employees is to steer grieving survivors into looking upon the payment of these debts, no matter how they came about, as a kind of tribute to the dead.

“Not everyone has the temperament to make such calls,” the report continues. “About half of DCM’s hires do not make it past the first 90 days. For those who survive, many tools help them deal with stress: yoga classes and foosball tables, a rotating assortment of free snacks as well as full-scale lunches twice a month. A masseuse comes in regularly to work on their heads and necks.”

The meek and self-denying are the company’s easiest prey: “One widow wrote that a collector ‘was so nice to me, even when I could only pay $5 a month a few times.’ Saying that money was ‘so tight’ after her husband died, she added: ‘It was very hard for me, and to get a job at my age. Thank you.’”

“We will never sell death,” an industry flack announces, with a marked air of protesting too much. Well, yes, they have launched a website called mywayforward.com, with “information, tools, and, someday, products.” The website has a prominent link to the NYT article. Helps build credibility.

This is wrong in so many ways. It also suggests an intention on the part of the debt manufacturing industry to one day make survivors liable for every last dollar of debt that could be foisted upon a dead relative during their lifetime. Right now, quite a few people hang up on the empathic active listeners of DCM Services. But given time and a tractable Congress, those people too can be made to pay.

Imagine: A revenue stream that flows from generation to generation, widening and deepening with the population itself. Money for nothing. Everyone shall be made to pay. That’s the dream.

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